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Stripling proving more than comfortable holding his own as a Blue Jays starter

DETROIT – Of the three starting pitchers the Blue Jays acquired at the 2020 trade deadline, Ross Stripling was the easiest to overlook.

Taijuan Walker posted a 1.37 ERA over six starts down the stretch that year, helping the Blue Jays reach the playoffs during that shortened season. Robbie Ray would do even better the next year, leading the American League in strikeouts, ERA and innings on his way to the 2021 Cy Young Award.

And Stripling? The deal that brought him to Toronto for minor-leaguers Kendall Williams and Ryan Noda that summer was hardly a blockbuster, but his importance to the team has steadily increased since then. Now a member of the Blue Jays’ starting rotation for the foreseeable future, he’s more than holding his own start after start.

On Sunday afternoon, Stripling kept the Tigers off-balance with his typically wide array of pitches on the way to a 6-0 Blue Jays win. After this outing, his season ERA sits at 3.14 through 43 innings with as many strikeouts (35) as hits allowed – far better than what most teams could reasonably expect from their fifth starters.

“When things are going well, you come to the field and have another week like you just had,” Stripling said. “You keep that routine and that structure down. What I did last week put me in a good position to have success. Hopefully it does again, but I’m not, like, all of a sudden thinking I’m in the hunt for the Cy Young. You try and stay even-keeled.”

The Tigers managed just one hit against Stripling, who faced the minimum over six scoreless innings. The right-hander struck out four without walking a batter before giving way to three Blue Jays relievers in need of some work: Yimi Garcia, Trent Thornton and Jordan Romano.

While Hyun-Jin Ryu’s next steps have yet to be determined, it’s apparent he’ll be out for weeks or perhaps months due to a forearm strain and elbow inflammation.

“He’s a ways away,” manager Charlie Montoyo said. “I’m not saying he’s done, just saying he’s a ways away. I’m not even thinking about that right now.”

That means Stripling’s role is clear – something of a rarity for a pitcher who went 11 days between outings at one point in May only to pitch in back-to-back games a couple weeks later while also recording a one-out save.

“He’s going to keep starting,” Montoyo said. “He’s doing great. He’s stepping up.”

In the weeks leading up to this year’s trade deadline, the Blue Jays must still survey the market for starting pitching, of course. There’s no clear option ready behind Stripling, so getting a read on the available starters will be important should anything change. But at this point, the rotation isn’t a glaring need, creating the possibility that the front office can focus more on the bullpen and bench come July.

“If anything I’m probably more used to the rotation than the bullpen now,” Stripling said. “You rely on experience. I’ve started games before and I know what it takes to navigate through a lineup two, hopefully three times.”

At the plate, the Blue Jays’ bats did plenty of damage against breakout Tigers starter Tarik Skubal, who began the day with a 2.33 ERA. A four-run fourth chased the left-hander from the game, and the Blue Jays added two more against the Detroit bullpen in the eighth.

“We’re just having fun,” said Santiago Espinal, who slid over to third base in place of a banged-up Matt Chapman. “More fun every day … Anybody on our team can get on base and in a matter of seconds, we can have a couple of runs just like we did today. Having everybody hitting and having good at-bats? I think that really plays.”

Bo Bichette’s been hitting at an elite level in recent weeks (.304/.364/.554 with 8 HR since May 1), a trend that continued in the fourth with a line-drive single that set up a loud 421-foot home run from Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who now has 14 on the season.

Along with Guerrero Jr., Teoscar Hernandez, Cavan Biggio and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. also had multi-hit games with Gurriel Jr. driving in three of the Jays’ six runs. Making his second career start behind the plate, rookie catcher Gabriel Moreno was hitless in three at-bats with a walk.

Meanwhile, Chapman was on the bench for the second consecutive day due to right wrist soreness sustained while swinging. The Blue Jays aren’t concerned enough to have sent Chapman for any imaging, but the issue meant he was unavailable as a pinch-hitter both days, which shortened the Blue Jays’ bench to just two players: Raimel Tapia and Bradley Zimmer.

“He just couldn’t go,” Montoyo said of Chapman. “He couldn’t even pinch-hit today, so we’ll see how that goes tomorrow.”

With the win, the Blue Jays take the series two games to one in front of 29,399 fans, thousands of whom were cheering for the visitors. The atmosphere at Comerica Park was lively all weekend, with friendly chirps directed at Blue Jays fans and occasional chants going back and forth between the teams’ fans.

That the Blue Jays visit Detroit just once a year is a huge missed opportunity for MLB given the proximity of the two cities and their history as American League rivals, but that’s a topic for another day. For now, this series win gives the Blue Jays a 35-24 record – and even more reason to believe in their new fifth starter.

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